Creativity is piercing the mundane to find the marvelous.
Wine poured freely in our clanking goblets as we pulled the skin off the delicately seasoned roasted hen we were served on rustic, metallic charger plates, the ones you often find at Pier One Imports. But alas, they were not from Pier One; they were simply a more third-rate set of kitchenware served at Medieval Times. And it was not Medieval Times next to Disneyland in California but Medieval Times in a small Northern Italian town off Largo di Garda. Yes, Medieval Times Italian-style, hence the abundance of wine. We sat there, in a fake 11th century castle within a European country housing actual Medieval, if not really old, architectural structures. Unlike the commercials found on television where hordes of children and their parents sit on different sides of a forum in a jovial uproar cheering for their knight to capture the queen, it was just me and two of my girlfriends who egged on our knight while a family of five on the other side of the stadium rallied behind theirs. Crickets, apart from the intermittent narration of the knights “clashing their way to Queen’s champion” ringing from the loud speaker. The anticipated excitement from watching the knights jousting was quickly subdued by their measured attacks against one another while they attempted to stay in sync with the trilingual narrator recounting the heroic Medieval battle in Italian, English, and German – in that order.
Many wondered, why would you go to Medieval Times in Italy when you can go in the US? Or more poignantly asked, why go to Medieval Times period? A place so gimmicky, so…American. This was surely not the way to explore another culture, much less, Italian culture. After all, we were graduate students “studying” at the University of Trento. We should be cooking pasta in our student apartments, going to local art museums, skiing in the Dolomites, touching the stone cold breast of Juliet in Verona, or at least making out with our Italian boyfriend of the week (or day).
It is exactly this dilemma that cuts to the heart of what it means to best experience another culture, travel “deeply”, and live like a local. Part of the reason people travel is to experience something different, something authentic, but we all tend to disagree on what is considered an authentic cultural experience. No matter how you want to use the term, “culture” is constantly used to define something exceptional and unique. Culture is that thing that makes people go “I am like this and you are like that”. Anthropologists study culture ad nauseum by deconstructing the very notion of it. We often look at culture through the looking glass, as one says, by observing the ordinary and participating in the mundane, rather than what is simply and conspicuously exceptional to a culture. After all, does visiting the leaning Tower of Pisa necessarily teach you more about Italian culture than Medieval Times?
But as travelers, we are not anthropologists by default; however, if we want to gain richer travel experiences, we need to start acting like one. Often times travel magazines, books, and professionals stress experiencing a place “like a local”. This, of course, is held to be the ideal, but lest we forget, locals don’t often live happy-go-lucky, carefree lifestyles that we seek to have when we go abroad. They are too familiar with their familiar. Remember, they live and probably work there, just like you live and work wherever you are. They are just as bored with their lives at home as you are (I’m kidding, a little bit). If you talk to many Californians, they will probably tell you that they don’t often make it to the beach despite the fact that they live fifteen minutes away. As proud as they are of their history, most Cairenes will not take a trip to Giza to ride a camel and enter the very narrow passageways inside a pyramid.
Of course, if you are visiting California you should go to the beach. And of course if you go to Cairo you should probably see the pyramids. When I say mundane, it does not necessarily mean boring, nor are mundane activities necessarily particular to one culture; they are mundane because you can do the same activities at home. As travelers, we stress out too much over doing what is particular to a place or culture that we become more of a tourist and less like the local we so desperately try to embody.
Here are few mundane activities you can do to deepen your travel experiences:
It is only through the mundane, the ordinary, the commonplace, that we realize how special, particular, and complicated other cultures are. In Italy, my friends and I somehow knew that cultural authenticity was illusory. We wanted a different experience and the best way to do that was to do something so familiar, so close to home, in a different land. We wanted to do something that defied the many experiences we were supposed to have abroad.
The point: We need to not only seek what’s outwardly different but also what is the same because difference often hides in the crevices of the seemingly familiar. After all, why chase the real and authentic when you can experience the surreal and bizarre?
Pray that your loneliness may spur you into finding something to live for, great enough to die for.
I was talking with my therapist a few months ago - rather, I was talking to my therapist because it appears that I pay someone $175/hour to stare at me while I speak. To shroud the uncomfortable, almost freaky silence between me and him at the beginning of each session, I desperately search for words to blurt out because I essentially have nothing to say. But as I begin to talk about absolutely nothing, something always comes out. Therapy is good that way – the uncomfortable silence begs you (or rather me) to speak and blabber about anything. The meaningless, empty chatter coming out of my mouth slowly but surely somehow turns into verbal vomit of the more profound kind. I don’t know how, but my blabber seems to seamlessly transition into something more revealing of my inner psyche, as if searching for something to say like, “I went to the movies last weekend” or "everyone annoys me" is somehow able to dig deep into my desires, fears, and doubts.
Although it seems like I am essentially speaking to a wall, this wall leads me to, well, honesty and a certain sense of self-discovery, even to a point when I notice he is trying desperately to suppress a yawn: one nostril flares up, chin quivers, and your eye squints ever so subtly as if trying to prevent a sneeze or unwanted gas. The annoying thing about what I like to call the caché yawn is that there is nothing caché about it! Everyone knows when someone is holding back a yawn! Everyone!
After finishing my ramblings, I finally thought of something to really talk about! I was telling him I read somewhere that when you think of the best memories in your life, they are always with someone else. I thought about it for a bit and didn’t really agree. Some of the best memories I have are memories of me being with myself, particularly while traveling somewhere for the first time.
I was thinking of the time I was in Milan one summer because I received funding from my university to go to the Istituto Marangoni, a big fashion and style institute to study the connection between style and nation-building. How I got funding for this, I have no idea, but I got it, and I was taking it (I ended up writing about something completely different in my dissertation). But I had arrived in Milan a few days early to explore the city. It was the first day of my arrival and I was excited to explore, all alone, Italy’s center of fashion, a city I’ve never been to and knew nothing about. I thought, I get to explore Milan without the encumbrance of being with a partner, a friend, or a lover (I can’t stand that word “lover”, it's creepy, I have no idea why I used it). I’ve done this before in other European cities and it always provided a chance for me to discover not only the city, but myself. I like the idea of being the “solo traveler” exploring a place on my own time, anticipating that sense of self-discovery while befriending locals and tourists, since it’s often easier to meet new people when you don’t have a piece of home attached to your hip.
When I reflect on traveling solo, what I enjoyed the least and remember the most was my sense of loneliness even more than simply being alone; that sense of despair when you soak into your new surroundings, let your eyes dance and ears sing with the beauty around you, and then suddenly realize there is nobody to share it with - that sadness you feel when you have fallen in love with a place, and the realization that that love is unrequited. You have to overcome this loneliness, but before that you have to accept it, engage with it, and have fun with it!
Some ways to engage? Observe and Explore! From the excitement of delving into a new world to the feeling of being dejected from it, here’s a small list of how I engaged with loneliness in Milan:
1. Take the opportunity to be a tourist. Of course, no one wants to burrow him/herself into one tourist trap after another. “Living like a local” is always ideal, but it’s important to remember that you are a foreigner – so, languish in walking like one, eating like one, seeing like one, and taking the time to explore like one (I prefer "experience like a local" - if you wanted to live like a local then stay home). Bathe yourself in the confusion and wonderment of not knowing anything about your surroundings and appreciate your semi-invisibility (unless you have a fanny-pack, or wear white socks, or carry a bottle of water everywhere you go). Maybe even, don’t have a plan. After all, what’s the point of discovering a new city when you’ve done all the research and know everything about it! Mary Morris wrote a good article on this!
2. Introduce yourself to your surroundings. Think, Under the Tuscan Sun. Walk, walk, walk, and after that, walk some more. Get a feel for the sidewalks, streets, signs, Vespas, cafés, ristorantes, shops, and markets. Randomly walk up to an exhibit at a museum even if you discover it is closed the day you decide you want to go in (Alanis Morrissette would have appreciated that). Mistakenly eat somewhere unappetizing (although this is almost impossible in Italy).
3. Embrace not knowing the language. Sit at a crowded café, preferably outside, and squeeze yourself into a spot sitting next to tourists looking at their guide books, couples not speaking to each other, or Italian girls chatting loudly and laughing. Just as you are appreciating all the commotion around you, accept the fact that the Italian girls are still gabbing loudly in a language you don’t understand, laughing louder than before, and let the feeling sink in that they are probably laughing at you.
4. Watch the passers-by. Gawk at the chic fashionistas, the not-so-chic fashionistas, the impeccably dressed Italian businessmen sporting well-tailored, azure blue suits that seem to never crease even as they get on and off their Vespa, or even the Italian boy doused from head to toe in a D&G turtleneck and cream-colored, impossibly narrow pants despite the 35° C weather. And don’t miss the overly fake-and-baked Italiana emitting more carbon in the air than China's factories (to be fair, China is becoming quite the eco-friendly powerhouse).
5. Walk on a busy street at night (try busy, not dangerous). Before experiencing the loneliness of eating alone, you must go through the loneliness of searching for a place to eat. Remember your friends and family back home when you see couples on dates and friends gathering for a drink preparing for a long night ahead of them.
6. Get frustrated with the mundane. Wait in line for an ATM machine or a gelato shop to get a taste of la dolce vita in cream form only to have a 4’2” Italian grandmother cut in front of you to order herself a double bacio gelato on a waffle cone. As you try to process this injustice, watch a nun do the same thing right after her.
7. Let the loneliness sink in...
My point? We need to feel the shock of not knowing, of getting lost, of misunderstanding or not understanding at all when traveling to a new place alone. Some may call this culture shock, but what is culture shock but a spoonful of pure loneliness? Some may also call this solitude. I feel solitude, however, is more intentional, more meditative and doesn't capture that tinge of melancholy one needs upon reflecting on one's desires.
But remember, don’t hibernate in this state of alienation. Let loneliness be a harbinger of good things to come and a reason to discover worlds and peoples you never imagined you would encounter. I admit, this is easier said than done, especially as one gets older; but try and use that sensation of being detached to motivate you to explore sites deeper and engage with people more profoundly because falling in love with Milan, or any place, is never a substitute for the love you get from friends, partners, and even…lovers.